Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

The big news with The Princess and the Frog is Disney Animation's return to hand-drawn animation. That detail might have been a bit over-hyped. But its an exciting return, as it is an art form that hasn't been subconsciously abandoned. I got to see the movie twice already, and there is a lot to praise about it. I just hope Disney improves upon this in the new decade.

The first thing I must praise is the screenplay. The dialog is the most un-clichéd I've heard from Disney in a long time! Rather than using worn-out movie lines, the writers find new ways to say the same things. And they go easy on the puns. The dialog was more dignified, and the movie ran smoothly all the way through.

For once, both the (supposed) princess and prince are not innocent, but flawed characters. Prince Naveen is spoiled and penniless. He is philandering and cut off from his rich family for being irresponsible. His self-absorption gets him into trouble, but give him a slight fearlessness of the outside world (although its just as naive). A slight flaw in the film, however, is the story establishes this too quickly.

Tiana is a career-driven, type-A persona. She is a very skilled chef, and she dreams of owning a restaurant in New Orleans. However, she has been so determined to succeed, she unknowingly abandons freedoms she already has. She chooses to work instead of having fun (even for just a few moments).

Dr. Facilier (played brilliantly by Keith David) is a very unique Disney villain. He is a voodoo master ("Shadow Man" in the movie), which is just the same as an evil sorcerer. However, this time its not just greed that drives him, but also fear for his own soul. Part of his plan is intended to help him repay a debt to his friends on the "other side." I've almost likened Facilier to a corrupt business man needing to repay loan-sharks.

All characters are put to good use in the story, and there's no wonder as to why they are there. Louis, the jazz-loving alligator may be comical, but he relates to Naveen and Tiana's plight, and is as much an outcast as they see themselves.

Raymond, the cajun firefly, initially struck me as a throwaway character, but soon becomes the movie's unlikely tragic hero. Tiana's debutante friend, "Lottie," becomes the frogs' destination as she is a temporary princess needed to break their spell. And Mama Odie, the blind voodoo lady, is presented as the wise fairy godmother. But to keep it fresh, the writers have her lessons temporarily fall on deaf ears. And Naveen's bumbling valet becomes the movie's secondary villain (Nice!).

The animation is beautiful and nicely balanced. Now that CG animation is in full swing, Disney's hand-drawn animation doesn't have to worry about trying to be as realistic as possible. Now the animators can go back to capturing what only 2D animation can capture: an immediate essence balanced with style, art and acting. The character animation is right to the point.

This "money shot" here reminds me of something Hayao Miyazaki would have done. The coins are all hand-drawn, so their lines are constantly moving.

An unsung star in this movie is animator Eric Goldberg. Goldberg's primary character is Louis the Alligator (who I think has the best animation in the movie). Goldberg is also responsible for the miscellaneous characters in the background. All these characters bear Goldberg's influence of Chuck Jones. Goldberg's animation captures something extreme and abstract, while also maintaining a soft flow and irresistible charm. Bravo Mr. Goldberg.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of Disney clichés here. And a few of those clichés contribute flaws. The final wedding scene is by far the most clichéd scene in the film, complete with a cute animal audience and over-the-top water effects.

The Broadway style also feels like a cliché long overused. But at least here, John Musker and Ron Clements do it right. Rather than just throwing a few songs into the film, the music takes up at least 1/3 of the film's length, making it seem like a complete musical. One of my complaints with movies like Aladdin and The Lion King is that there wasn't enough music in the movies to make the musical aspect complete. With The Princess and the Frog, the other 2/3 of the film don't seem out of place with the rest of the music.

Randy Newman's jazz inspired score is a new achievement in his animation repertoire. I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of Randy Newman's scores. I find them too happy-go-lucky sounding. I like it when music can change its tone and ambience according to the scenes. In Princess and the Frog, Newman's score seems a little more experimental, and he incorporates jazz and swing music into the mix, and he does a nice job balancing it with some Gershwin inspired orchestrations.

The Princess and the Frog works very well on its own. Compared to other Disney movies, its definitaly one of the best, but it still feels like another Disney movie. There's nothing about it that makes it significant compared to other movies. But on its own feet, it works tremendously well. Disney's animated films still have much to improve upon, and they have just started again here.

We are approaching the next decade of the 21st century. And that really shouldn't mean anything. Its just another year.

Happy Holidays anyway!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An Evening with John R. Dilworth

On this blog, I haven't expressed enough of my admiration for John R. Dilworth. I still think Courage the Cowardly Dog is one of the best shows on Cartoon Network (even long after its run) and his independent work is ingenious. A couple nights ago, John was the subject of an ASIFA-East retrospective, and as an ASIFA-East board member, I took the opportunity to write about the event. The article has been published over at The Exposure sheet. Check it out. It was a tremendously enjoyable evening. You couldn't predict anything! Much love goes to John, and plenty comes back to you!

A great Thank You to Pilar Newton for taking these pictures!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great movie. It is also an anomaly amongst other films of recent years.

Anderson's films have a questionable charm to them. We see characters we want to like, but then all these little negative nuances pop up, and the characters become more and more flawed. In saying that, Mr. Fox may very well be Anderson's most charming movie since Rushmore in 1998.

Although this is Anderson's first adapted screenplay, the characters still maintain traits that make this a familiar Anderson territory. For example, the dialog is mostly expository, and characters are portrayed as being brutally honest, and willing to point out things that nobody else needs to hear. And when a character is in need of sympathy, that same character offers some hostile anecdotes.

Mr. Fox (or "Foxy"), the primary character, is the only one who makes himself out to be "fantastic." Immediately, there is a cunningness to the character that the audience can appreciate, but in several scenes, we are ultimately reminded that he is very selfish, and even admits to having feelings of narcissism. George Clooney's performance seems to enhance the leading-man image that Foxy has of himself.

Every other character in the movie lives in their own world, until theirs' falls victim to Foxy's world. Roald Dahl's original story doesn't begin until about a third into the movie. Anderson might have done this in order to set up each character and their motivations.

There is something of a war objective going on. The second half of the movie involves a war between animals living in refuge and humans interested in petty revenge and carnage. It feels like a Holocaust of sorts (and I mean that very lightly). Foxy is targeted for behaving like a wild animal, and the other animals have to suffer for it, even though they all behave like good all around (human) citizens. The three farmers ("Boggis", "Bunce" and "Bean") are the oppressors. Bean acts as the dictator, and the others coming off like passive-aggressive Nazis.

I have mixed feelings about the voice acting. I was concerned about George Clooney playing the lead at firsy, but now I feel that his vocal performance is the strongest. His voice is the most identifiable, and suits the character of Foxy very nicely. The rest of the actors were alright, but not all felt right. Jason Schwartzman, Wallace Wolodarsky, and Eric Chase Anderson all sounded too similar to one another, and Bill Murray sounded too much like Bill Murray. Meryl Streep did a nice acting job, but it wasn't used enough, and Owen Wilson was promoted for a performance that only lasts about 3 minutes.

Visually, the style is classic stop-motion, but in a way that tells a children's tale. In other words, it is technically advanced, but attempts to look simple and aligned. Anderson is known for setting up very crisp looking shots, which is optional for live-action, but a definite for animation. That right there gives some comfort in Anderson taking over an animated venture. The best animation directors need to be able to design their movies, and Anderson is no stranger to this task.
And no Wes Anderson movie is complete without a unique soundtrack of old 1960's rock tunes. When watching Mr. Fox, I had to resist singing along to the songs in the movie, which include stuff from the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Burt Ives, and the Bobby Fuller Four.

Jarvis Cocker's appearance (as a human character, "Petey") is a welcome surprise. Cocker is one of my favorite songwriters, if not one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years.
I was not alone in laughing at the irony of Petey being called a weak songwriter.

I have to say the stop-motion style works remarkably well. The characters are only slightly stylized, but are not painfully realistic. The look is carefully balanced between cute, believability, and realism. And the mechanics of the puppets are one of many, many testaments to the puppet work of McKinnon and Saunders. Its good to see puppets with moving jaws, as opposed to stuck on mouths. And the storybook design works pretty well, although it would have been nice to see the sky looking something else other than sunset orange.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox really is a film that both adults and children can enjoy. No more of the parents saying they like the film, because it teaches their children good morales. Here, children audiences can enjoy the look and actions of the characters, while adults can pick out intellectual stimulations that are equally humorous.